Smoldering Hatreds

6 minute read
Hannah Beech | Shanghai

For North Asia, it was supposed to be the year of living harmoniously. In January, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun rang in the Korea-Japan Friendship Year in Seoul by announcing, “Let’s be friends happily and head toward the future.” This sunny message was an echo of the event’s catchy theme song, Dance with Me, performed by Korean singer Lena Park and a Japanese band called Chemistry. China also picked up on the good vibes and was making efforts to put aside its long-standing antipathy toward Japan: a group of women climbers from Japan and China arranged to take on Mount Everest together, their ascent supposedly symbolizing that the steep challenges in the relationship between Asia’s two great powers can be overcome. Economically, too, North Asia has never been closer: China is now Japan’s largest trading partner, and trade between Japan and South Korea is at an all-time high.

But the ancient rivalries that perpetually plague relations between Japan and its neighbors never stay submerged for long. The bonhomie has evaporated in recent weeks after Japan renewed a campaign for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council alongside China. Although Japan’s bid received an endorsement from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, South Korea’s ambassador to the U.N. told reporters that the world’s second-largest economy was not entitled to a permanent seat because it “lacks the confidence of neighboring countries.” In China, opposition to Japan’s U.N. bid started out as an Internet petition drive that gathered 25 million signatures and culminated in mobs vandalizing Japanese department stores in Chengdu and Shenzhen. “Japan’s final aim is to dominate Asia by military force. China has an obligation to stop Japan from doing so,” says Tong Zeng, one of the petition’s organizers.

Even usually stalwart Japanese business interests in China are spooked by the vitriol: Honda, the first Japanese carmaker to produce autos in China, announced it would curtail business trips to the mainland for safety reasons. Meanwhile, eight events for the Korea-Japan Friendship Year have now either been postponed or cancelled. Roh posted a “letter to the nation” on his website declaring that his country must be prepared to wage a “diplomatic war” with Japan.

Just how did promises of amity dissolve so quickly into enmity? For one thing, long-standing territorial disputes between Japan and China and between Japan and South Korea over the rights to potentially resource-rich waters surrounding several islands in the Pacific are flaring up again. These disputes are made more urgent by rising oil prices and China’s booming energy demands. But the hostilities are due as much to historic frictions as to economic ones. Many South Koreans and Chinese contend that Japan has never fully repented for its brutal wartime past. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has only exacerbated tensions, they say, with his repeated trips to the Yasukuni Shrinewhere military dead, including convicted war criminals, are honoredand with his failure to visit China since 2001.

It hasn’t helped matters that Japan’s Education Ministryheaded by one of Koizumi’s more conservative appointeeslast week approved a textbook that critics say whitewashes the country’s imperialist past. Among other things, it downgrades the Nanjing Massacre to an “incident.” China immediately labeled the book “poison” and summoned Japan’s envoy to Beijing for a dressing down, while a text-message campaign urged Chinese to boycott Japanese goods. One of China’s largest supermarket chains, Nonggongshang, said its 1,200 stores would no longer stock products from Japanese companies whose top brass are associated with a group sympathetic to the new textbook. Meanwhile, Seoulwhere people were already angry that a Japanese prefecture recently claimed a remote rocky islet as its own, even though the Korean coast guard has been patrolling it for 57 yearsreacted with similar indignation. Particularly galling to South Koreans was that Japan’s education czars had directed four Japanese textbook publishers to refer to the disputed island as Japanese territory.

Such provocation notwithstanding, the surge of Japan-bashing may stem more from domestic politics rather than any serious external threat. South Korea’s Uri Party, which supports Roh, faces a critical by-election at the end of this monthand with Korea’s economy sputtering, fanning regional hatreds might help to bring out the nationalist vote. Roh may have had this strategy in mind last month when he suggested that Japan pay further reparations to Koreans mistreated during the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, and that Tokyo must make a “genuine” apology. Diplomatic ties between the two countries were normalized by a treaty 40 years ago, yet Roh touched a still-raw nerve. One man threw himself off a bridge to protest Japan’s claim on the tiny island the Koreans call Tokdo (the Japanese know it as Takeshima), while a mother and son lopped off the ends of their little fingers and threatened to send the bits of flesh to Prime Minister Koizumi. Meanwhile, Roh’s popularity rating has rebounded recently to 38% from a low of around half of that last year.

Chinese leaders, too, are prone to Japan-baiting to garner popular support. An incursion into Japanese waters last November by a Chinese submarine was applauded on many mainland websites as a sign of growing Chinese power. In recent weeks, several nationalist websites that were previously shut down by Beijing have been allowed to campaign against Japan’s U.N. Security Council bid, signaling that China might use a populist outpouring as a rationale for blocking Japan’s membership. In Beijing last Saturday, thousands of anti-Japan protesters were allowed to march to the Japanese embassy, where they threw bottles and demanded a boycott of Japanese goods.

Ultimately, stirring up public passion could harm relations between countries that have much to gain from economic cooperationas cooler heads in China, Japan and South Korea are eager to point out. “As Chinese, we should do our best to avoid creating the impression among the Japanese public that the new China is a rising and hostile country,” says Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “What we say and do are very important in shaping the Japanese sense of their own safety in the international community.” Says Akiko Fukushima, director of policy studies at the National Institute for Research Advancement in Tokyo: “We have to make proactive efforts to have better relations with China and Korea. Otherwise Japan will not be a viable player in Northeast Asia.”

If Japan remains at loggerheads with China and South Korea, that could leave North Asia ill-equipped to defuse what may be the most serious threat of all to regional security: a nuclear North Korea. Six-party talks with the hermit kingdom have stalled and bickering among three of the participants certainly won’t help them get into gear. “Now that you need Japanese cooperation more than ever, you make [the Tokdo islands] an issue?” says Balbina Hwang, an expert on Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C. “This has gone completely out of control.” That harmonious future President Roh spoke of so glowingly just three months ago? It’s already gone up in smoke.

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